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MORAVIANS . The Moravian church, as the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren) is popularly known, is a Protestant denomination with roots in the fifteenth-century Hussite reformation and the eighteenth-century German Pietist movement. By the late nineteenth century, these influences had coalesced to give the denomination its contemporary form and character.

The Unity of Brethren was founded in March 1457 in Kunwald, Bohemia, as the Jednota Bratrská (Society of Brethren), but the issues behind this event stretch back more than a century. From the mid-fourteenth century there had been growing demands for reform within the Roman Catholic Church of Bohemia and neighboring Moravia. The reform movement was centered in the capital city of Prague and the newly established Charles University (1348). Persistent Waldensian influences as well as newer Wyclifite influences from England were evident in this movement.

The calls for reform finally found their most eloquent voice in Jan Hus, priest, university professor, and popular preacher. Although attracted to the doctrines of Wyclif, Hus claimed to advocate independently a return to apostolic simplicity in the church, and he vigorously attacked the lax morality of the clergy. As Hus's popularity increased, so did controversy about his ideas and his difficulties with the hierarchy. He was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII in 1411 but eventually appealed his case to the Council of Constance then in session. After his trial, deemed irregular by later historians, he was burned at the stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415.

Hus's death served to arouse his followers in Bohemia. His ideas soon became entwined with a developing Bohemian nationalism, and Hus himself became something of a folk hero. When civil war erupted, a series of unsuccessful crusades were launched, with the blessings of the papacy, in an attempt to subdue the heretics. Among the most ardent Bohemians, highly respected for their military zeal, were a group of radical religious and political reformers headquartered in the town of Tabor. Although they were destroyed as a separate party by the late 1430s, many of their religious ideas lingered on in the population. Bohemia's political situation would remain unstable for a century after Hus's death until 1526, when the crown was acquired by the Habsburg Ferdinand I.

Upheavals occurred also in the religious life of the Bohemians and Moravians as several groups claiming the heritage of Hus emerged alongside the Roman Catholic Church. One such group, the Utraquists, represented a conservative attempt at reformation, finally insisting only on the right of all believers to receive the bread and wine at Communion and continuing to hope for a reunion with a purified Roman Catholic Church. It was the Utraquist archbishop-elect Jan z Rokycan (c. 13901471) whose preaching inspired one of the founders of the Brethren, his nephew Gregory (d. 1474), to pursue more vigorously the goal of reformation. Jan z Rokycan also introduced Gregory to the writings of the radical reformer Petr Chelčický (c. 1380c. 1460).

Within ten years of the founding of their society, the Brethren felt the need to establish their own clerical orders to insure the efficaciousness of their ministry. They chose deacons, presbyters, and bishops from among their membership. One of the candidates was a former Roman Catholic priest, and some Waldensians may have participated in the establishment of the new orders. Modern historians see in these events an attempt by the Brethren to reconstitute the style of ministry of the New Testament church. Any attempt by the Brethren to claim apostolic succession as traditionally understood must be laid to a faulty reading of Waldensian history on their part. The orders established in 1467 have been carried on into the contemporary Moravian church.

The first decades of the Brethren organization were marked by sectarian characteristics including pacifism, rejection of oaths, communal organization, use of the titles brother and sister for all members, suspicion of advanced education, reluctance to admit members of the nobility to membership, and a preference for rural living. This trend was reversed under the leadership of Bishop Luke of Prague (c. 14601528), who succeeded in 1494 in having the works of Chelčický and Gregory reduced to nondogmatic status. The group gave up much of their exclusiveness and moved into the mainstream of society, though not without the defection of a conservative minority. The majority, although retaining a strict church discipline, grew rapidly. It has been estimated that by the 1520s there were from 150,000 to 200,000 members located in 400 congregations in Bohemia and Moravia.

Under the leadership of such bishops as Jan Augusta (15001572) and Jan Blahoslav (15231571), the Brethren maintained generally friendly contacts with Luther (who wrote favorably about them) and later with leaders of the Reformed churches. Although ecumenical in spirit and experiencing strong influences from first Lutheran and later Reformed theology, the Brethren maintained their own course. They structured their church with dioceses headed by bishops, abandoned clerical celibacy, and eventually accepted a general Reformed understanding of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.

In worship, while ritual was simplified, the church year was retained and lay involvement encouraged through the publication of hymnals and the Czech-language Kralitz Bible (15791593) in six volumes with commentary. The church sponsored schools and encouraged the training of clergy in foreign universities.

Since their legal status was often in doubt, the Brethren endured periodic persecutions by the Utraquists and the Roman Catholics. But they continued to maintain their vitality and established congregations in Poland, which later merged with the Reformed church.

The involvement in political affairs of members who were of the nobility helped to bring about disastrous consequences for the Brethren in the opening phase of the Thirty Years' War (16181648). With the defeat of the Protestant forces at the Battle of the White Mountain (1620), suppression of Protestantism in Bohemia and Moravia began. The events of this era are highlighted in the career of Bishop Johannes Amos Comenius (15921670), the renowned educational theorist. He spent much of his life in exile developing his reforms of education and despite several personal tragedies never lost his belief in the power of the educated mind to serve God's purposes for humanity.

The traditions of the Brethren survived in Bohemia and Moravia through secret meetings and the laxity of government officials in enforcing conformity. Sporadic contacts with Lutherans in border areas also helped to sustain morale.

A group of these secret Brethren were led in 1722 to the German estate of Count Nikolaus Zinzendorf (17001760) by the lay evangelist Christian David (16901751). There they established the village of Herrnhut. A creative theologian and gifted leader, Zinzendorf became the driving force behind the merger of the Brethren's traditions with the emphases of the Pietist movement.

After initial difficulties, the growing community experienced a series of unifying experiences in the summer of 1727, culminating in a service of Holy Communion on August 13. The fellowship now developed the unique characteristics that would mark its second phase. The residents were organized into residential groups based on age, sex, and marital status ("the choirs"). The intent was to foster spiritual experience appropriate to one's stage in life and to utilize the resources of a concentrated labor force. From Zinzendorf's Christocentric emphasis flowed a rich liturgical life with stress upon the AdventChristmas and Holy WeekEaster cycles. The Moravian understanding of the joyous nature of the relationship between the believer and the Savior enabled them to develop education and the arts in his praise, sponsoring schools and producing musicians and artists of note. The Brethren's clerical orders were continued through new ordinations by the two remaining bishops in exile. Since the church developed a conferential form of government, however, the bishops became primarily spiritual leaders.

Worship was characterized by a simplified liturgical ritual that observed the festivals of the Christian calendar with particular attention to the AdventChristmas and Holy WeekEaster cycles. Unique features included the singing of many hymns, with the minister clad in a surplice for the celebration of the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. The Lovefeast, patterned after the agapē meals of the early Christians, developed as a significant service. In it participants were served a simple meal as an expression of their fellowship with one another.

Under the leadership of Zinzendorf and his de facto successor Bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg (17031792), Herrnhut became the model for some twenty similar communities established in Europe, England, and the eastern United States. These self-sufficient "settlement congregations" were to serve as the home base for two types of outreach developed by the Brethren.

Beginning in 1727 the Moravians sent forth members to serve in their "diaspora" through establishing Pietist renewal societies within existing state churches. This practice is supported by European Moravians today. In 1732, after Zinzendorf's presentation of the plight of the West Indian slaves to the community, the Brethren Leonard Dober (17061766) and David Nitschmann (16961772) went to Saint Thomas. By 1760 the Moravians had sent out 226 missionaries to the non-European world. This effort introduced into Protestantism the idea that missionary outreach is the responsibility of the whole church, brought the Moravians into significant ecumenical contacts, such as that with John Wesley (17031791) in Georgia and England, and helped shape the contemporary Moravian church.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the settlement congregations were given up as no longer viable and the towns opened to all who wished to settle in them. German and Scandinavian immigration to North America in the last century brought new Moravian congregations into being in the eastern and midwestern United States and western Canada. The end of World War II found Herrnhut and the older settlements in East Germany and, through the movement of refugees, a stronger Moravian presence in western Europe. Immigration continues to affect the Moravian church through the recent movements of Surinamese members to the Netherlands and Caribbean-area members to cities in England and North America.

The Moravians have also experienced constitutional changes as they have moved beyond their European origins. The British and American areas of the church gained independence from the German in the mid-nineteenth century, but the foreign missions continued under control of an international board that met in Germany until the end of World War I. Responsibility for the work was then divided among the European, British, and American areas of the church. A major constitutional change in 1957 resulted in the creation of the present seventeen autonomous provinces located in Europe, England, North America, Central America, and Africa, and the undertaking of educational work in India and Israel. The provinces constitute the Moravian Unity and send delegates to periodic meetings of the Unity Synod. The late twentieth century witnessed the rapid growth of the church in Africa and Central America. In America, the Moravian church did not experience significant growth until after the mid-nineteenth century. Earlier attempts at "diaspora"-style outreach had proved unsuited to America, since there was no religious establishment within which to work. Groups gathered by diaspora workers simply became congregations of other denominations. The retention of the exclusive settlement congregations until the 1840s also retarded outreach.

The church has continued to honor many of its traditions of worship and practice. While eschewing a formal dogmatic theological tradition of its own, it affirms the historic creeds of the Christian faith, continues to emphasize the believer's relationship with Christ, and to encourage fellowship among its members. Both men and women are ordained as pastors. The church's historical ecumenical stance is reflected in its participation as a founding member of the World Council of Churches and in the activities of the various provinces in regional councils of churches. Total worldwide membership in the late 1990s was around 720,000.

See Also

Comenius, Johannes Amos; Hus, Jan; Pietism; Zinzendorf, Nikolaus.


The most comprehensive bibliography for the early history of the Moravians is Jarold K. Zeman's The Hussite Movement and the Reformation in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, 13501650: A Bibliographical Study Guide (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1977). Peter Brock discusses The Political and Social Doctrines of the Unity of Czech Brethren in the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries (The Hague, Netherlands, 1957), while the whole history of the early Moravians is dealt with in Edmund A. De Schweinitz's old but comprehensive History of the Church Known as the Unitas Fratrum or the Unity of the Brethren, 2d ed. (Bethlehem, Pa., 1901). The later history of the church is found in J. Taylor Hamilton and Kenneth G. Hamilton's History of the Moravian Church: The Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 17221957 (Bethlehem, Pa., 1967). The best recent biographies of central figures in Moravian church history include two works by Matthew Spinka: John Hus: A Biography (Princeton, N.J., 1968) and John Amos Comenius: That Incomparable Moravian (Chicago, 1943). Zinzendorf is the subject of John R. Weinlick's Count Zinzendorf (Nashville, 1956) and Arthur J. Lewis's Zinzendorf: The Ecumenical Pioneer (Philadelphia, 1962).

New Sources

Mason, J. C. S. The Moravian Church and the Missionary Awakening in England, 17601800. Woodbridge, U.K., 2001.

Sommer, Elisabeth W. Serving Two Masters: Moravian Brethren in Germany and North Carolina, 17271801. Lexington, Ky., 2000.

Vogt, P. A. "A Voice for Themselves: Women as Participants in Congregational Discourse in the Eighteenth-Century Moravian Movement." In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker, pp. 227247. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

David A. Schattschneider (1987)

Revised Bibliography